He left the door unlocked, in case I arrived before he got back from teaching. I thought I’d timed the drive from Durham to ensure an appearance well after school let out, but he didn’t answer when I knocked and it was quiet and dim in the apartment.
Everywhere were signs of his new life. A recent playbill, Italian olive oil and sea salt ceramics on the stovetop, a fancy turntable and vinyl records we haven’t listened to together, new Jack Purcells, a Pynchon novel he’s never mentioned, a tennis racket – when did he start playing tennis? -- a picture of him and someone else, planted in the center of the coffee table. While I waited, I picked out an album to play, not one of the new ones, one that reminded me of our time together. The Ramones, Best of the Chrysalis Years. Take It as It Comes, Rockaway Beach, I Don’t Wanna Grow Up, Out of Time, Ignorance is Bliss. Then I picked up the photo.
You are seated, still, your head barely tilted forward. Your eyes are closed. Your smile is slight, almost serene. You are wearing a black tee, all cotton, the kind that you love. Your straight fine brown hair is parted in the middle and sweeps off to the sides just below your eyes. If I were an artist, I would try to capture the symmetry of that sweep, and the sweep of your jaw from ear to chin, the curve of your bare neck, the crescent shape of your cheek bones, the slope of your long nose.
Right behind you stands a woman, a few years younger, maybe 25 or 26, wearing jeans, a plain gray tee shirt, a hoodie wrapped around her slim waist. Her head is turned left, her eyes focused far to that side, and her disheveled hair appears to have been hurriedly gathered at the nape of her neck. She seems about ready to speak or smile broadly, her walnut-shaped eyes wide and bright and her mouth, a matching shape, parted just enough to reveal perfect white teeth. With long brown slender fingers she holds strands of your hair, as if about to braid them.
Others are present in the room. The photo captures a partial profile of another young woman smiling in your direction. A guy in the corner has his eyes on someone out of camera reach. And there's the person taking the photo, also invisible. A blackboard in the near background is clean of all chalk marks except for a date in your clear block printing: Today is Thursday, October 17. Sheets of lined paper, busy with children’s handwriting, are taped to the side frame in an orderly column. Your nicely arranged classroom, ready for the next day’s lesson.
What was I doing there? Come up to Charlottesville, he said. Come see where I live. I’d really like to see you.
In the year since the breakup, we’d spoken maybe a dozen times. Always cutting a little too close to the boundaries we’d set. We had these intimate two-hour conversations every few weeks and it felt like three minutes of love making. The past is so seductive.
One time he’d said, it’s funny how people will feel threatened when someone else cares about them.
I asked what people he was talking about.
He said, like this woman he’d been seeing in Charlottesville who wouldn’t talk to him anymore. She wanted to keep him at arm’s length, she wasn’t ready for a relationship. She’d said the word “relationship” like it was a sexually transmitted disease.
That’s one person.
Yeah, well, other people too.
Other people as in you?
Yeah, I guess so. Probably.
Once I asked if he’d meant it the year before when he said he was falling madly in love with me, and he said I don’t know if I said madly in love, but yes, he’d meant it. He’d been in love with me. He still was.
The same as last year?
Well, we haven’t been romantically involved.
Yeah, but the feeling?
Well, I just felt it wasn’t best for us to be involved. The situation wasn’t right.
The age difference.
More than once he’d said it was just too hard. He wasn’t ready to deal with a lot of emotional turmoil. The messiness.
I never said how much of an emotional mess there’d been, there still was, for me.
Now, seeing that photograph, his eyes closed, the tidy blackboard, everything so cozy and comfortable, I was thinking it had been a mistake to come.
So I took that photo, and I set it on the stove, not centered, a little too close to the cruet of olive oil in fact. I had to search for a match, but I finally found one in a lidded glass jar on the balcony by the Weber grill. With a single strike, the match was lit and landed on the happy photo, and I walked out, not waiting to see if the tiny flame caught anything else. I didn’t really expect it would, but I left the door unlocked just the same. And the CD still playing. The whole three-hour drive back to Durham I could hear the boy singing My poor discarded baby, You’re obsolete, my baby.